White House acts to limit YouTube cookie tracking

Just 12 hours after I highlighted privacy problems with the White House's new Web site, the Obama team has deployed a fix that provides significant protection to many (but not all) of the site's visitors.

Chris Soghoian
Christopher Soghoian delves into the areas of security, privacy, technology policy and cyber-law. He is a student fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society , and is a PhD candidate at Indiana University's School of Informatics. His academic work and contact information can be found by visiting www.dubfire.net/chris/.
Chris Soghoian
4 min read

Just 12 hours after this blog highlighted the privacy problems associated with the White House's use of embedded YouTube videos, the Obama team rushed to deploy a technical fix that significantly protects the privacy of many (but not all) of the site's visitors.

Since its launch three days ago, President Obama's White House Web site has included several embedded YouTube videos. While this certainly demonstrates that the 44th president is Web 2.0 savvy, the decision to embed YouTube videos has also enabled the Google-owned video-sharing site to sneakily collect data on the millions of people who visit Whitehouse.gov--even those users who never click the "play" button to actually watch one of the videos.

Change.gov, the Web site for the Obama/Biden transition team, also made extensive use of YouTube videos. This practice was something that I sharply criticized back in November, citing the cookie-related privacy risks as well as the decade-old rules prohibiting the use of long-term tracking cookies on federal agency Web sites.

Unfortunately, when the new White House Web site launched, rather than fix the privacy issues that had plagued the transition team's Web site, Obama's legal team instead opted to provide YouTube with an exemption to those pesky federal regulations, letting it use long-term cookies to track visitors to the White House Web site. No other company was singled out and granted such a waiver.

It seems that someone in the White House read my blog post yesterday--as within 12 hours of the story going live, Obama's Web team rolled out a technical fix that severely limits YouTube's ability to track most visitors to the White House Web site.

By late Thursday evening, each embedded YouTube video had been replaced with an image of a video player, which a user must click on before the real YouTube player will be loaded. The result of this change is that YouTube is now only able to use cookies to track users who click on the "play" button on an embedded YouTube video--the majority of people who scroll through a page without clicking play will not be tracked.

This is clearly a step in the right direction--and it is particularly interesting to see that the White House has essentially rolled their own version of the Electronic Frontier Foundation's MyTube privacy tool.

While this is great news (especially after just a few hours), it is by no means a comprehensive solution, but a Band-Aid. Those users who do click the "play" button will be secretly tracked as they navigate the White House Web site--and if those users have visited YouTube or any other Google-run Web site in the past, the fact that they watched an Obama video will be added to the existing massive pile of data the company has compiled on each of them.

Simply put, there is no good reason for Google to be able to data mine a citizen's interaction with the president--especially when watching a video that was produced and uploaded by the White House at the taxpayers' expense.

The White House is already making use of Akamai's commercial edge caching services, and the transition team made full use of Amazon's Simple Storage Service for the download-friendly version of Obama's weekly address. Rather than using YouTube, the State Department has for some time opted to pay for a commercial, flash-based video streaming solution provided by Brightcove for its propaganda information site America.gov.

If the Obama team is willing to pay for some of its Web 2.0 technology, why can't they also follow the State Department's lead and cough up a few bucks for a streaming video service that doesn't cross-subsidize its offerings by tracking the Web habits of users.

Finally, if the White House lawyers are going to waive long-standing federal privacy rules for YouTube, merely mentioning the existence of that waiver is not enough. Given Obama's much publicized commitment to transparency, I think it's quite reasonable to ask that the team post the text of each and every waiver to the federal cookie policy to its Web site. Members of the public have a right to know the reasons that were used to justify exempting YouTube's cookies from these otherwise strict rules. If the YouTube waiver cannot withstand the analysis of legal experts and the ridicule of tech bloggers, it probably shouldn't have been authorized.

The White House Web site has been live for just three days, and in just the past day, Obama's administration has given us some reason to believe that it takes Web privacy seriously. Over the next few weeks, it'll have a chance to prove it.